A Goodbye to a Great Man Gone too Soon; Rest In Peace Austin

I don’t talk about our volunteer fire department that we have here in our little town of St. Paul, Oregon very much; but maybe it’s about time. I’ve been a volunteer for the St. Paul Fire District since 2006. This all volunteer district covers mostly rural area and responds to both fire and medical calls. I started as an EMT and then Firefighter I. I have been an active volunteer until 2018 when I took a hiatus from responding to have our third baby. I’m still keeping up my certs, I’m still planning to return to full time volunteering soon. For me it’s a part of my family here in St. Paul, some of my closest friends are those who throw on turn outs next to me when the tones go off. I know we all feel that way.

But today I want to talk about another fireman and friend who I have known his whole life, Austin Smith. Austin was tragically killed in an explosion during a barn fire on February 3rd, 2022. His death was terrible and heartbreaking, and we have no real answers yet as to what exactly occurred in that early morning fire. What we know is that he was taken too soon, plucked by God for reasons we have yet to and may never fully understand.

That Thursday morning I was home getting my kids ready for school, in usual hurried morning fashion, I glanced at my phone, and stopped in my tracks. It was blowing up with texts about a fire. First alarm, second alarm….and on and on…all for a barn fire. Then something about Lifeflight. Then the news of “we did everything we could” and “it’s not good” and “come to the station”.

The words “This doesn’t happen. Not on a barn fire. Not in St. Paul” keep rolling around in my head, still even today as I sit here and write this almost two weeks later. And yet here we are faced with a tragedy that no one expected and no one was prepared for.

We buried Austin, husband, son, brother, uncle and friend to everyone last Saturday in a grand ceremony that was incredible in all the ways it could have been. Incredible turnout of over 5000. Incredible sadness. Incredible speeches that were moving and full of good stories, memories and love. Incredible food, friends, and most importantly incredible beer. You can watch the full ceremony here.

When a man only 30 years old leaves an instant legacy of volunteerism, community service and love for a small town; it is felt by all. It’s moving, and sad all at once; but mostly it was inspiring. That was the theme as we went through the whole week before and even on the day of Saturday; what can we do for this community? How can we help? How can we make a difference for those around us?

Austin, you are so missed; by your family, by your bride, by your friend tribe, by fire family and by our whole community. But I want you to know that what you worked for in your short time here, won’t be lost and it wasn’t for nothing. Your life gave and will continue to give all of us who were honored to know you so much for generations to come.

There were so many moving parts to Austin’s memorial. Many of which I was honored to be a part of. One of the most amazing though was bringing him home with the rest of our department volunteers. Below is a video of just a glimpse of the scenes we saw while driving from Clackamas to St. Paul and then on to the funeral home in Newberg. It was breathtaking the entire way. Cars stopped on the freeway, flags flying, people with hand over hearts and tears in their eyes while we drove on by to bring Austin home.

Austin was so many things to so many people. This small blog can’t do a bit of justice to all the ways that he lived his life; a volunteer, farmer, rodeo member, firefighter, Jaycee; the list goes on and on. Here are just a few news stories that encompass what it was to know Austin, or as Firefighter Reed Godfrey put it during his memorial, “To know Austin was to love Austin.”

Memorial Honors Fallen St. Paul Firefighter
Austin Smith: Ag community mourns loss of farmer, firefighter
The community of St. Paul and the state pays tribute to fallen firefighter Austin Smith

That dark February morning changed our town forever. The explosion, in one split second, could have been enough to drive a wedge between all that we knew and all that we could fear. Instead though after Saturday, seeing our town come together, I think his tragedy and ultimately the legacy of his inspiring life becomes the glue that will now hold us all together while we all keep working to accomplish what Austin would have wanted from all of us, to keep on going.

At the end of the memorial. After so many tears, the last call tones were sent out to Firefighter Smith. I don’t know that I will ever forget that moment and words that will forever be nestled in my heart as we all heal, “Godspeed Austin. We’ve got it from here.”

Life Beyond the Farm & Having it All

I have found it a very common theme that farmers or those involved in agriculture have a reach that goes much beyond their own acres of land.  Maybe it’s because we are traditionally from smaller communities that have been built with volunteers, or maybe it’s because we have needed help at some point too and have always had a network to reach out to just over the fence row.  Or maybe it’s because we are bored…oh wait…nope…scratch that…it’s definitely not the reason. I have yet to meet a bored farmer!

I don’t often talk about my life outside of farming and family on here.  And probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that I never think of it as interesting or worth blogging about, because it’s just what I have always done and what has always been the norm for my life.  I grew up in a family that volunteered and gave their time where it was needed, and it’s something that runs as deep in my blood as the soil that I farm.  I, like many other farmers, volunteer as a firefighter and EMT in our community.  I also sit on many boards, mostly agriculturally involved.  I give a lot of time to these efforts of making things better for my fellow farmers, making things safer for my neighbors and overall helping where needed in the community.

This is a photo from the Woodburn High School Fire back in 2012, when I was still “Kirsch”

So all that being said, as many of you know I am expecting our third little baby this coming spring.  I actually headed up to the fire department just last night to have department photos taken and looked like this in my uniform shirt.  Which was hilarious but also made me a little sad.

A few months back I had to make a number of phone calls that I truly didn’t want to make, conversations about me stepping down, stepping back, and in some cases leaving all together.  Off boards with friends who have become family, folks who I have sat next to over years, in some cases over 10 years, at the local fire station, farm bureau board room or even coffee shop.  These meetings were more than just meetings, it’s where I learned some of the most valuable lessons of not only about how to be a good fireman, EMT or farmer; but a friend, a good colleague, and a solid person.

At a Marion County Farm Bureau Meeting, showing that “I Farm I Vote”

So last night when I tried (and really I did try) to button up that uniform shirt for what might be the last time in a long time, it was very bittersweet.  It was a blatant sign that I had made a choice, it was a sign that having it all doesn’t always mean you have it “all” and that decisions no matter how tough, have to be made.  I know I have made the right choice in moving back from my involvement, but it doesn’t make it any easier to say “see you later” to the folks who have made life here in this small town, and within the farming industry, so amazing.  I have no doubt that I’ll be back, remember it’s in my blood…and for now farming and having three kids under 4 (which yes I realize is still a lot) will take my time and focus.

I often have people ask me how I do it “all” and I often don’t really know what to say.  But I think now I’ll say that having it “all” doesn’t mean that you get to have everything you want right now.  It means to me that I have to be realistic and make choices that make what I can handle in the “now” all the more worth it.  Moving forward with life is not a choice, time will keep passing, but it does mean we get to make choices in the direction we head.  So for now, I’m heading back to the boys who are calling “mommy” (all the time!) and back to the fields to look for slugs.  For now that’s where my “all” is, and for now that’s all I need.

Wheat Field Fire

We did have some small amount of excitement this year while harvesting wheat.  It was the perfect storm in many ways, mostly in good ways thankfully!

It was on one of those really super hot days we have been having here at the tail end of summer.  Probably in the high 90’s and we were two rounds into a field of standing wheat. Hoot had just climbed in the cab with Matt and I to make a few rounds (to make sure we are doing it right of course!) and as we turn the corner in the combine he starts to yell and point, “Burning Mommy!”  And sure enough I looked to where he was pointing and saw flames 15 feet in the air….chaos quickly ensued.  “Fire!” over the radio, meanwhile one of our guys saw the flames and was running to his rig to get extinguishers.  Equipment driving out of the field as fast as possible, a call to 911…it was all very crazy!

Here are the things that went wrong…our best guess is that the sickle bar hit a rock and caused a spark, which caused the field to start on fire very quickly.  The wheat is incredibly dry when we are harvesting so it doesn’t take much for fire to start and spread very rapidly.final

But here’s what went right.  Firefighter Hoot was on scene and spotted the blaze quickly!  We had everyone there!  Both truck drivers, my dad, Matt and myself were all miraculously in the field at that moment.  90% of the time it’s just the combine driver and maybe a truck driver, not much for manpower.   The wind was blowing away from the standing wheat so it spread the fire as far as the headland and then stopped.  We had plenty of fire extinguishers and the guys moved fast to wet the standing wheat and put out small spot fires.  It was a great job done by everyone!final-2

We were lucky that day, this whole thing could have been a very different story if the wind had shifted, if it had happened just 30 minutes before…really the what-ifs are endless.  I have never harvested looking back in my mirrors so much in my life!  It was also a little nerve wracking harvesting next to the burned area on the next round, I am pretty sure I was holding my breath!  final-1I can honestly say this year I was glad to put the combine away on the hottest days that were yet to hit a few weeks ago.  Here’s to hoping that never happens again, and if it does, we get all the things that “went right” again!

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